Saudi Arabia is blocking Hajj pilgrims from three West African countries suffering large Ebola virus outbreaks from making the iconic Muslim visit to Mecca, while a Saudi man is being tested for the hemorrhagic fever after traveling to Sierra Leone.
The Saudi Ministry of Health (MOH) announced Monday it would block any Hajj or Umrah visas for anyone traveling from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
“We have communicated the instructions to the officials of all ports of entry. We have trained our personnel on how to identify and deal with Ebola cases and control virus infection, should it happen,” Dr. Khalid Marghalani, MOH spokesman says.
There are over 13.5 million Muslims living in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Guinea has the largest Muslim population, at around 9.7 million or 85 percent of its total population, while 60 percent of Sierra Leone’s 5.7 million population are Muslim. Liberia is majority Christian, but still has around half a million Muslims living there.
The Hajj is a compulsory pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim worldwide must make at least once in their life. The Umrah is a similar pilgrimage, but can be done at any point in the year and isn’t an obligation under Islam. Over 3 million Muslims from around the world made the Hajj pilgrimage in 2013, but that was actually down from 2012 because of fears over the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak there.
At least 10 people were infected with the more easily spread MERS virus over Ramadan this year, from late June to late July. Last year the Centers for Disease Control recommended pilgrims wash their hands often, do not touch their mouths, noses or eyes and be wary of sick people in crowds.
One of the Hajj’s most spectacular moments, and the most dangerous as far as communicable diseases go, is the massive Tawaf –or circling — of the Kaaba building in Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims gather together to circle the Kaaba building together in close contact.
This year’s Hajj takes place from Oct 1-6.
Meanwhile a Saudi man who traveled to Sierra Leone on business is being tested for the virus in the city of Jeddah. Sierra Leone has seen 576 confirmed cases of Ebola and 211 deaths since the virus first broke out in West Africa in late March. At least 826 people have been killed and 1,440 infected with Ebola across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
The outbreak was a largely local issue until it first spread from those countries three weeks ago when a Liberian-American man fell ill and died in Nigeria while on business. A Nigerian doctor who treated him has now fallen ill.
Two American aid workers have also fallen ill and are now being treated with experimental medication at a state-of-the-art facility in Atlanta, Georgia. A man was admitted to Mount Sinai hospital in New York City with symptoms similar to those of Ebola and is now being tested for the virus.